A federal agency that oversees scientific research in polar areas, including work on climate change, has been left leaderless for more than two years by the Harper government.
The Canadian Polar Commission has operated without a board of directors since the fall of 2008. It was created by the Mulroney government in 1991 to "monitor, promote, and disseminate knowledge about the polar regions to Canadians and internationally." It has an annual budget of $1-million.
"We have a very broad mandate, and the board members are the ones who have to start prioritizing what we can and can't do," the commission's executive director, Steven Bigras, said in an interview. "At the end of the day, the long-term commitments - new research priorities, new projects -it's up to the board to set those."
Mr. Bigras outlined the problems in the agency's 2009-2010 annual report, which was submitted to the government last week.
"This has been an unusual year, one that has brought successes and challenges in equal measure," he wrote. "Since the terms of the previous board members have expired, this has affected the commission's operation from the planning and implementation of new initiatives to ongoing interaction with the polar research community."
The commission's last board meeting was in June, 2008, and the term of the last president, Trent University professor Tom Hutchinson, expired a few months later. The government ran an official notice in the Canada Gazette more than a year ago to find new board members, but has yet to make any appointments.
The Opposition said the government's actions are further proof of its "total disregard" for scientific research.
"The government wants to be the one setting the research agenda; they don't want northerners or scientists to set it. They don't want suggestions or fact-based evidence," said Liberal MP Larry Bagnell, who received assurances more than a year ago that a new board was coming.
In a statement, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs said that qualified candidates are being interviewed, and that the positions will be filled.
"The government of Canada is committed to making the Canadian Polar Commission an effective instrument that can contribute significantly to the delivery of the government's northern strategy," said spokeswoman Margot Geduld.
The Harper government has come under fire in recent years for cutbacks to scientific funding. Government scientists are also angry because they say they are being muzzled and prevented from speaking freely in the media and at conferences.
The Canadian Polar Commission helps to co-ordinate research in the Arctic and the Antarctic, focusing much of its attention on climate change, the subject of political debate around the world.
"We have become acutely aware that these regions are feeling the effects of global climate change more intensely than anywhere else on Earth, and that these changes are occurring more rapidly than we could ever have predicted," Mr. Bigras wrote in the latest annual report.
The commission has helped the government to set the stage for increased scientific work in the North through a promised Arctic research station. Announced three years ago with a scheduled completion date of 2017, plans for the facility are moving ahead. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said over the summer that the government will spend $15-million on the design phase.
Based in Cambridge Bay, a Nunavut community of about 1,400 that is an important transit point on the Northwest Passage, it will be by far the largest research facility in Canada's North.